Teenagers and Divorce: A Survival Guide for Separated Parents

How to thoughtfully engage with your teen and family's divorce.
By:
Diana Spasic
July 16, 2021
E

verything is intensified for teenagers: their feelings, their fears, their beliefs, and their disappointments. Parenting the average teen can be challenging even during the best of times. But it may feel even trickier during and after divorce or separation.

If you’ve recently gone through a divorce or separation, learning what to expect from your teen and how to respond will be of tremendous help. It’s a challenging situation for everyone involved when parents go their separate ways. However, with some patience and understanding, you can help both you and your teen go through the transition phase as smoothly as possible.

Parental divorce during the children’s teenage years is more common than you may think. I know many people whose parents’ separation happened when they were teenagers. I’m one of them — my parents divorced when I was 15, and I walked my kids through my own divorce not so long ago.

I now see what my parents should have done differently, so I try to avoid going down the same path with my children. I also now understand how confusing the process must have been for my parents, and I have a new level of compassion for how hard it is to manage divorce with teenagers.

With a little help from someone who’s been through it, this phase doesn’t have to be so challenging. I’ll list the do’s and don’ts of navigating through teenagers and divorce, from the eyes of a kid who’s already gone through it (and wishes someone shared this with her parents back then).

Do Listen to Your Teen

teenagers and divorce: Mother comforting her daughter

Every teenager goes through a parental divorce with mixed feelings, and not all of them have the same reactions. They may have a million questions and concerns, or they may refuse to talk about the separation or open up about their feelings.

The latter may be devastating when you care so deeply about your teen’s well-being during and after the divorce process. If your teen refuses to talk to you, don’t push them. Wait for them to be ready. We promise there will be occasions when they feel like sharing something with you.

While teenagers and divorce may be a tricky mixture to handle, stay alert for moments of openness unrelated to the separation, like offering up a detail about their day at school or a friend who’s going through a hard time. Let them know you’re always there to talk about anything without explicitly mentioning the separation, and actively engage in what they do share by asking follow-up questions to keep them talking.

Your kid needs to feel valued by you. While they may not always be in the mood to talk, it’s essential to give them your undivided attention when they finally feel like it.

Put down your phone, turn down the TV, and give them your full attention. Refrain from devaluing their emotions by saying something isn’t a big deal or they don’t need to worry. Instead, validate their feelings and dig deeper by saying things like:

“It sounds really upsetting that you weren’t invited to go to the beach this weekend with your friends. What do you think you’re going to say when you see them next?”

“I’m so sorry you didn’t feel good about the math test. You studied so hard for that. How are you feeling about your science test next week?”

What may seem minuscule to you may as well be your teenager’s whole world, and they need to know you care about the small stuff (like tests and friend group dynamics) before they come to you with the big stuff (like how they’re feeling about your divorce).

Do Expect Insecurities

teenagers and divorce: Son leaning on his mother's shoulder

Teenagers usually feel less attached to their parents compared to younger children. They may have different priorities and worry about changes that may occur outside the home. Their primary concerns post-divorce might include spending time with their circle of friends or a girlfriend or boyfriend, and thinking about how this separation will affect their lives.

Teenagers often experience the five stages of grief after their parent’s divorce with a more vigorous intensity than younger children and may react by pulling away.

The loss of a family unit and security at this sensitive time can significantly impact your teenager’s behavior. They may feel their safe place is falling apart, and it can be overwhelming to juggle those feelings with everyday tasks and the usual teenage insecurities. It’s not uncommon for them to have mood swings and mixed feelings about everything. But remember, underneath it all is usually insecurity that needs to be addressed so your kid feels calmer about their future.

To deal with any behavioral problems, try to make them feel secure and stable again. You can do this by showing them you can work as a team with your ex, regardless of the separation. Seeing the two of you communicating after the divorce and working together on maintaining a solid life structure for them despite your differences will make your teen feel the stability they crave.

Do Prepare Your Teen for a Change

Sometimes a separation includes moving with the teen, whether across the country or to a new neighborhood. One parent might be long-distance and the kids may be moving part time. Often, teens feel sadness or anger (or both) about moving, changing schools, giving up on extracurricular activities, or being far from their friends half the time.

Putting things in the proper perspective is crucial for them to start accepting the changes, and it’s your job to make sure they understand why they need to happen and that you’ll be there for them every step of the way.

Talk to your kids before the changes start happening to give them time to prepare. Don’t hesitate to show them you aren’t happy about the changes either (if that’s true). Empathize with them and let them know you’ll miss your old habits and routine too  — but also promise you can get through it together.

When it comes to teenagers and divorce, disrupting their routine may present some of the most challenging situations. The transition period can be hard (really hard). If you move away with them, your teenager will probably miss their friends and be FaceTiming a lot. If they move only part-time, they may be comparing their new situation to the old one for a while. Stay present with them in all their emotions, let them feel it all, and don’t force them to love this new way of life before they’re ready.

Do Maintain Your Role as the Adult, Not the BFF

teenagers and divorce: Father and son talking to each other while walking in the park

Parents often choose to act like friends for their kids, especially after separation from their partner. They usually do this out of the purest intention of getting closer to their kid and making them open up. However, teenagers don’t only need friends in these situations. After a divorce, they may need a parent more than ever.

A teen needs clear boundaries at all times, and especially during their parents’ divorce. My dad always had a soft spot for me, but after he and my mom divorced, he suddenly turned into a funky, cool friend who let me go wherever I wanted. It was awesome for me at the time, but my perspective has now changed. I didn’t have a parental figure, just a very cool best friend. As much as I adore him, I wish he was more of a father than a cool dad.

Suddenly changing your parenting style is destabilizing and entirely confusing for your teen. Finding the right balance may seem hard, but remember: There are tons of people who could be friends with your teen, but only a couple who can be their parent.

Don’t Stress About Split Finances

When a household gets separated into two, teens usually experience financial fears. Will they be able to afford the same things? Will money be tighter now? What about their allowance, who’s going to supply it and when? All these questions (and a million others) will go through their minds.

To get all shared expenses in order, use a helpful app for the heavy lifting. Separated parents aren’t usually thrilled to communicate, especially regarding divorce finances and co-parenting expenses.

Asking your ex to pay for something can feel humiliating or awkward, and that may be the last feeling you need after divorce. Sometimes, parents put teenagers in the middle of financial issues because they feel they are old enough to be included. They ask the kids to ask their exes to repay them for various things. Luckily, technology has evolved enough to allow co-parents to resolve any money issues without involving the kids, regardless of the kid’s age. Using Onward, you can share all co-parenting expenses with your ex and keep track of everything — and your teen never has to hear or talk about it (unless they want to).

With the Onward app, you can request to be reimbursed and send proposals for upcoming expenses without talking to your former partner. Check it out on the App Store and Google Play.

If your teenager expresses worry about finances, let them know you have a plan for how to communicate with your co-parent. Assure them that they can run any needs by either of you and you’ll work it out among yourselves, so they don’t need to stress about any further details.

Don’t Use Your Teen as a Weapon or Messenger

Using the kids to act like a messenger between the two of you puts them in a tough spot. It’s very unsettling for a young person just starting to experience a grown-up life to have to say, “Dad told me to give you this note.” It’s placing them in the center of your conflict, and the very fact the two of you don’t talk tells them the battle is ongoing. Even after the divorce, a kid that acts as a messenger continues to live a life overwhelmed by their parent’s never-ending disagreements.

Single parents sometimes even use their teens to get back at their exes, as one of my close friends experienced. Her mom wouldn’t let her travel to see her dad as often as she should have to deprive her ex of his daughter’s presence. In doing this, she also denied my friend the presence of her dad, which resulted in her always missing him.

The separation is between you and your ex-partner. Do your best to avoid putting your kids in such unfavorable positions.

Don’t Stop Holding the Teens Accountable for Their Actions

Teenager using her phone while her stressed mom looks at her watch behind her

No matter what happens in the family or outside it, your teen must understand that they will always be accountable for their actions. It’s so tempting to let things slide so you can stay in their good graces — but do your best to maintain any house rules and family boundaries you had before, even if it upsets them.

Let’s say you had a rule of no phones after 11 p.m., and you catch your teen on Snapchat at midnight. Your son or daughter tells you they’re lonely and it’s your fault they’re far from their friends since you moved recently, so now their only option is to chat online.

You may be exhausted, you may feel guilty, and you may let this one slide. It’s normal to struggle with maintaining boundaries when all you want is to ease this transition for your child. However, whenever you can, try to maintain your parameters so your teen isn’t always guessing on what to expect from you.

Teenagers and Divorce: It’s Tricky, But It’s Possible

If you keep in mind that safety and structure are the primary things your teen needs, you’ll be at an excellent starting point. Then, with the right co-parenting strategies, you can maintain stability in your teen’s life.

Not every teenager experiences the effects of divorce with the same intensity. Your son or daughter might have a harder time or an easier time than you expect. As long as you pay attention to their signals and prepare for some ups and downs, you will all get through this new season of life.


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Diana Spasic

Diana is a writer who specializes in blogging. She's on a mission to inform and uplift people in complex and confusing life situations she's been through herself. When not working, you'll find her at the seaside or in the mountains.